IT HAD been a wet and soggy spring, and the Trinity was lapping at the pavement of the narrow West Dallas Pike in Oak Cliff, prompting worried officials to close the bridge across the river. The ground was soaked and there was nowhere for the water to go, but the rains kept coming. Finally, on May 25, 1908, the meandering stream thai had been a harmless neighbor just a summer ago became an alarming menace and rampaged across Dallas like a black cloud of locusts through a field of tender grain. Fifty feet deep in the channel and 2 miles wide, the relentless torrent gushed and swirled past the awestruck onlookers lining the shore. It carried away shacks, outhouses, timber, and debris, and as workmen struggled to stabilize the Texas and Pacific railroad trestle, it took them, too. The saloons in the low-lying areas were so deep in backwater that the bartenders had to roll up their pant legs and work bare-toot. Frankie Edwards, who ran a local junkyard, drowned in the middle of McKinney Avenue, near the present location of the El Fenix restaurant.
The Dallas Brewery, now part of the West End redevelopment, was ravaged by the flood, and the site that is to become the new arena was littered with mud and rubble for weeks after the water receded. The putrid flood water contaminated the town pumping station, knocking out the water supply and causing a malaria epidemic. The power house at the Dallas Electric Light Company sputtered to a halt like a straight-six Ford choking on cheap gas. There was no water or electricity for days. Hundreds were rescued from tree limbs and rooftops and thousands were homeless. In Oak Cliff, water was 12 feet deep on Zang Boulevard.
This was not what Dallas founder John Neely Bryan had in mind when he set up housekeeping in (he winter of 1841 in a dugout in a small bluff overlooking the river at a point above what is now the Triple Underpass. He envisioned a stream of commerce, echoing with the sound of steamboat whistles and snarled by the traffic of barges carrying cotton and com to Galveston. In 1852, a flatboat called the Dallas attempted such a journey, but the crew, exhausted from poling, oaring, and whacking snags, gave up near Corsicana after averaging about 20 miles a month. A few years later, the Sallie Haynes, an 87-footer, actually completed the voyage in reverse, from Galveston to Dallas, but the trip took more than a year. The Trinity has never been very cooperative.
The river won the battle of 1908, but the town leaders decided to stage a counterattack. It might be said this was a classic characteristic of the frontier Texan, determined to prevail against overwhelming odds. But it could just as well be argued that the local leaders were more of a mind-set akin to that of the mules that dragged the plows through the black land mud-sometimes it took a whack between the eyeballs to get their attention. When it came to spending money, even on something that had to be done, the pace was agonizingly slow. Two years later, work began on what was claimed to be the longest concrete bridge in the world. Now known as the Houston Street Viaduct, this massive mixture of 60,000 yards of gravel and 74,000 barrels of cement is the oldest surviving bridge across the Trinity.
The same year the bridge was started, the Dallas City Plan and Improvement League, an arm of the Chamber of Commerce, hired George Kessler of Kansas City, a former Dallas resident and nationally known city planner, to draw up Dallas’ first master plan, the cornerstone of which was to get control of the river. Everyone agreed it was a splendid idea, and the plan was placed carefully on the shelf to gather dust. In the spring of 1922, another torrential rain transformed the Trinity from a timid stream to a relentless and unforgiving force, rising more than a foot an hour for 24 hours and consuming everything in its path. Public officials felt the need to dust off Kessler’s flood control plan, but then placed it on a lower shelf.
Twenty years after the flood of ’08, local politicians held groundbreaking ceremonies on the Hood control project. The concept was simple; the implementation was not. First the river had to be moved. The former course ran between the hillside upon which Union Station now sits and the bottomland below now occupied by Reunion Arena and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Not far from there, the Elm and West forks of the river converged- that had to be moved, too. In a project said to by one-twelfth the size of the Panama Canal, a thousand men worked on the epic-undertaking, relocating the channel and building two levees 28 feet high, which have since been patched more times than a Depression era inner lube. Four more bridges were built across the river and connected by the new Industrial Boulevard.
The levee was sorely tested in the summer of 1949 when the Trinity, fed by a 12-inch rain, crested 17 feet above Hood stage. In Fort Worth, water was up to the second floor of the Montgomery Ward store on 7th Street. I remember the water covering Kaufman Pike in South Dallas that year, and the sight of a convoy of volunteers in the distance in wooden boats with five-horsepower outboard motors ferrying the black residents from the flooded shanties of Roosevelt Heights to temporary refuge on higher ground.
The conversion of the swampland along what are now Stemmons and Carpenter freeways into some of (he most successful industrial, commercial, and marketing complexes in the country has been a mixed blessing. The massive level of runoff that this and other developments send roaring into the river every time it rains was never envisioned by the flood control planners. The levee was beefed up in the late 1950s, but every time a Texas monsoon sets in, officials at the U.S. Corps of Engineers cast worried glances at the fast-rising water. In 1966, a rain of more than an inch an hour for six hours flooded the creeks feeding the Trinity, creating havoc in North Dallas. Another gully washer in 1989 swelled the Trinity to a crest at more than 43 feet, causing millions in damage.
When Mother Nature is of a mind to create monumental mischief, she seems to find the three forks of the Trinity, spreading through Dallas, Fort Worth, and the surrounding metropolitan area, to be irresistible.